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Abstract Expressionist School: The New School for Social Research

Summary of The New School for Social Research

The New School for Social Research is not, nor ever was, an art school in the traditional sense. Its importance during the post-World War I years up to and beyond the Abstract Expressionist period was as a haven for artists and intellectuals of all disciplines to gather and discuss controversial matters without fear of political censure. Specializing mostly in adult and continuing education programs, The New School for Social Research has frequently hosted lectures and forums, many of which were attended by important Abstract Expressionist artists and theorists. Much like schools such as the Art Students League and Black Mountain College where abstractionists and other artists learned to master their craft, The New School was where many of them acquired the ideas and philosophies (such as Freudian psychoanalysis, Existentialism, and Marxist aesthetics) that informed their art.

Founding Principles
  • The New School was founded as an institution where intellectuals and artists could openly exchange ideas and theories, free from censure or political pressure. The school's founders believed that in a world engulfed by political turmoil and modern warfare, the free exchange of different ideas regarding politics, aesthetics and other intellectual pursuits was key to ensuring a just and sane world.
  • The founders based the structure of The New School on the German Volkshochschulen, a school model that stressed the importance of adult education and a diversity of intellectual and interdisciplinary pursuits.
  • Since its inception, The New School has maintained close ties with European ideas and philosophies of Rousseau, Kant, Goethe, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, among many others.
Origins of The New School for Social Research
During World War I, a small and outspoken group of professors working at Columbia University were censured by the school's president, Nicholas Murray Butler, for speaking out against U.S. involvement in the war effort. (Butler himself had been an opponent of U.S. intervention in the war, but changed this position in 1917 when he established the Student Army Training Corps.)

These professors resigned from Columbia and decided to establish their own school, which they opened in 1919 in the lower Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea, and called it The New School for Social Research (or commonly known for short as "The New School").

The original faculty of The New School included Charles Beard, James Harvey Robinson, Wesley Clair Mitchell, John Dewey, and Alvin Johnson, the university's first president.

The University in Exile
The University in Exile was established as the graduate division of The New School in 1933, founded as a sanctuary for academics escaping persecution in Europe during the initial stages of the Second World War. In the 1920s Alvin Johnson was appointed to co-edit the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences; in order to compile this work, Johnson traveled frequently to Germany, Poland and other European countries to consult with colleagues. While abroad, Johnson became acutely aware of the growing threat of National Socialism in Germany, posed by the relatively new Nazi political party and the rising dictator Adolf Hitler, who were systematically opposed to democracy and intellectualism.

New School Founders Sensing a dire need to provide safe haven for many of Europe's scholars and intellectuals, Johnson established a new graduate department in 1933 (coinciding with Hitler's appointment to German Chancellor), called the University in Exile. With the financial assistance of the Rockefeller Foundation and other philanthropy groups, the University in Exile was founded as a new graduate division within The New School and, more importantly, as a rescue program. Nearly two hundred European scholars and professors received visas and teaching jobs in the U.S. from the University in Exile. While many of them taught at The New School, there was never any stipulation from the University in Exile that they were required to do so; Alvin Johnson's main goal was simply to get people out of harm's way.

The Pre-World War II Years
On January 1, 1931, the "Special Exhibition Arranged in Honor of the Opening of the New Building of the New School for Social Research" opened to the public. Included in the exhibition was Arshile Gorky's painting Improvisation (n.d.) (since its inclusion in the exhibition, the painting has either been lost or inexplicably re-named). The show was organized and curated by artist Katherine Dreier, who had previously exhibited her work at the famed 1913 Armory Show.

From February 14-16, 1936, the First American Artists' Congress Against War and Fascism was held at The New School for Social Research. The first meeting of the Congress had taken place elsewhere the previous spring, but this 1936 gathering constituted the first official congregation of Congress members to sit in on lectures and discussion panels.

Attendees at the 1936 Congress included Alexander Calder, Adolph Gottlieb, Isamu Noguchi, David Smith, James Johnson Sweeney, Ilya Bolotowsky and Yasuo Kuniyoshi. Among the 34 lecturers who spoke at the three-day event were artist Stuart Davis and critic/historian Meyer Schapiro. The prevalent themes centered around the opposition of Fascism in Europe, and the need to band together and promote the importance of free creative expression during times of war and hardship.

Drips, Pours and Surrealism
In 1940 the British Surrealist artist Stanley William Hayter, who had previously founded the Atelier 17 studio in Paris, came to The New School and held several painting and printmaking workshops. One of Hayter's most famous techniques was using what he called a "drip can." Not long after Hayter's arrival as a lecturer at The New School, Gordon Onslow Ford, another British artist who had trained and studied with André Breton and the French Surrealists in Paris, also joined the faculty. Ford was best known for his "poured canvases," a technique wherein he poured paint onto a canvas placed flat on the floor.

Between January and March of 1941, Ford delivered a series of lectures on Surrealism at The New School. In attendance were Motherwell, Baziotes, Tanguy, Jimmy Ernst, and many others. It was rumored, although never confirmed, that Pollock, Rothko and Gorky attended the lectures as well. The flier for the Onslow Ford's lectures read, "Surrealist Painting: an adventure into Human Consciousness ... Far more than other modern artists, the Surrealists have adventured in tapping the unconscious psychic world. The aim of these lectures is to follow their work as a psychological barometer registering the desire and impulses of the community."

To accompany each lecture, a sequenced series of small exhibitions were held in an adjacent studio space. The first exhibition was devoted to Giorgio De Chirico; the second featured works by Max Ernst and Joan Miró; the third exhibition was by Margritte and Tanguy; the fourth and final exhibition showcased contemporary Surrealist works by Wolfgang Paalen, Jimmy Ernst, Esteban Frances, Roberto Matta and Gordon Onslow Ford himself.

Meyer Schapiro and the Abstract Expressionist Years
Beginning in 1936, Meyer Schapiro started delivering regular lectures at The New School for Social Research. Unlike the Surrealists Hayter and Ford, Schapiro catered his lectures more to Hegelian philosophy, emphasizing style and form over matters concerning the human conscious and unconscious.

Throughout Schapiro's tenure at The New School, emerging artists and critics such as Helen Frankenthaler, Fairfield Porter, Joan Mitchell and Thomas B. Hess attended his sessions. Schapiro also gained acclaim in the late 1930s for calling attention to European modernists like Picasso, Braque and Miró, who had up until that point remained relatively unknown to New York artists who would soon make up the Abstract Expressionist movement.

The New School after World War II
Following the collapse of fascism in Europe and the Allied victory in World War II, the University in Exile was renamed the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science. (In 2005 the name was changed once again to The New School for Social Research, in honor of the academic institution's original name in 1919.)

In 1940, shortly before the war's end, New School President Alvin Johnson invited German theater director Erwin Piscator to come and open a theater workshop at the New School. Simply called the 'Dramatic Workshop,' from 1940 to 1949, Piscator operated a first-rate theater school, and educated such students as Marlon Brando, Harry Belafonte and Tennessee Williams. The Workshop would eventually close due to political pressure during the McCarthy era. Piscator was then forced to return to his native Germany. However, the tradition of theater and the performing arts at the New School would soon be renewed.

In 1994 the New School partnered with the highly renowned Actors' Studio, and established its first Master of Fine Arts program in the theatrical arts. Also beginning that year was the popular television program Inside the Actors' Studio on the Bravo network. This New School-Actors' Studio partnership was dissolved in 2005 due to contractual issues, at which point the New School established its own theatrical college, The New School for Drama.

The New School for Social Research was conceived as a safe haven for artists, professors and intellectuals to freely exchange radical ideas on politics and aesthetics, and it has continued to operate in that tradition to this day. While many of the great Surrealist and abstract artists of the era trained at formal art schools like the Art Students League, they ventured to The New School to learn about the very theories and philosophies that are most commonly associated with Abstract Expressionism, i.e. Freudian psychoanalytic theory and the human consciousness, Existentialism, and Marxist aesthetics. The New School was not the place where artists like Motherwell and Baziotes perfected their craft, but it was where they honed their minds in the philosophies and formal theories that informed their art.

"I attended The New School for Social Research for only a year, but what a year it was. The school and New York itself had become a sanctuary for hundreds of extraordinary European Jews who had fled Germany and other countries before and during World War II, and they were enriching the city's intellectual life with an intensity that has probably never been equaled anywhere during a comparable period of time."
- Marlon Brando

"In a Fascist form of government some one person, usually with a silly face, a Hitler or a Mussolini, becomes the model which every subject must imitate and salute... Anyone who laughs at those stupid mugs, or incites other people to laugh at them, is a traitor. I think that is the reason why dictatorships fear artists. They fear them because they fear free criticism ... The time has come for the people who love life and culture to form a united front against them, to be ready to protect, and guard, and if necessary, fight for the human heritage which we, as artists, embody."
- Lewis Mumford, from his opening address to the First American Artists' Congress, February 12, 1936

"Tonight I have given you a brief glimpse of the works of the young painters who were members of the Surrealist group in Paris at the outbreak of the war. Perhaps it is not by chance that all of us except Brauner and Dominguez have managed to find our way to these shores ... I think I can speak for all my friends when I say that we are completely confident in our work and slowly but surely with the collaboration of the young Americans we hope to make a vital contribution to the transformation of the world."
- Gordon Onslow Ford, concluding remarks from his lecture, March 5, 1941

Content written by:
  Justin Wolf


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